Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday, February 27, 2009: Slumblog millionaire

It seems that I have been outdoing myself - 3800 words of rage in the last two days. I think we'll ease into the weekend with a slightly lighter edition today. But what I do have in return is some exciting news - Editing the Herald is going multimedia! In collaboration with bFm, I will have my own pre-recorded segment on the Sunday Breakfast with Jose starting next Sunday (the 8th). It will most likely just be something I have already written about, but you can pretend to be surprised anyway. Anyway, if lots of people listen and like it, surely it's only a matter of time before we have our own 24-hour news-rage channel, where we live-blog whatever is on TVNZ News 24 at the same time.

Air New Zealand taking the plunge: "Airline upbeat despite profit plunge", says the front page of the business section; on page 5, the actual headline reads, "Air NZ hopes to pull up from profit drop." Unfortunate headlines, one might think, given the recent plane crash near Perpignan that cost the airline not only profits, but the lives of seven people. It's not quite on the scale of Harvey Normans' legendary 'final solution' advertising blunder, but it's bad enough.

Speaking of which, there was an interesting front-page story yesterday about the French investigation into the crash. Although the findings are apparently preliminary, it looks like the crash may have resulted from carrying out some rather radical manoeuvres (for a large passenger airliner) - manoeuvres that the German pilot doesn't seem to have particularly keen on undertaking. An American accident investigator told the Herald that what the plane was doing was 'unjustified and risky'.

What's interesting about the article, however, is that the Herald reporters seem to go to considerable lengths to avoid making uncomfortable links between the cockpit recordings, the testimony of the investigator and what seems to me a logical, if perhaps slightly premature, conclusion: that the crash may well have been the result of bad decisions by the Air New Zealand crew. Now, perhaps a modicum of respect for the dead is due, and leaping to conclusions may not be the greatest idea, but it doesn't seem to stop the Herald doing it the rest of the time. I can't help but wonder if it hasn't got anything to do with being rather sheepish after the reporting after the crash, where the dead crew treated as heroes. Again, I'm not trying for any shock value here and I have no desire to rag on the dead, but they were just people doing their rather lucrative job when circumstances intervened. If, as the Herald seems to think, the crash is still newsworthy, then I would rather they didn't pull punches, even if it means coming to face with some uncomfortable facts about their past reporting.

To blog or not to blog: In the world of news-rage journalism we have a saying: when it rains, it pours, and when it doesn't rain it's rather dry indeed. An 'anonymous' commenter (commentator?) on yesterday's post criticised the very core of my blogosophy, claiming that the fact I only wrote about a handful of stories a day meant that the Herald wasn't that bad at all, and in fact no worse than 'quality' dailies overseas. Well, as I pointed out in my... pointed reply, writing this (for free) takes me long enough without commenting on every article. What's more, my inspiration for this came after coming back to New Zealand from the UK, where there are papers of a much higher standard, and (obviously) papers of a much lower standard. Obviously, part of it is linked to my political and social biases - but I imagine that, if you were one of those people worried about reds-under-the-bed, you wouldn't be here in the first place.

But the most important point here is that there are three types of article in the Herald: the good, the bad and the boring. I'm a big enough man to admit that they get some things right - sometimes the news is straightforward enough that it's tough to screw up reporting it. Sometimes the articles are bad, which is when I write about them. But most of the time, at least from the perspective of someone trying to write humorously about the news, the articles are boring. What am I supposed to write about "Kiwi artist's Lonely Dog signs up to become a Hollywood movie star"? Sure, maybe a story about a fictional dog shouldn't be on the front page, but it's hardly worse than the rubbish normally on there. "Heavy rain likely to bring flooding"; "Research shows high rate of gastric diseases in NZ"; "Judges renew plea for more guards at courts". There's only so much that even a skilled craftsman can do with such material. As one of my key news-rage advisers warned me, "Don't TRY and be attention worthy... that is, after all, the source of the Herald's problems." Editing the Herald is, and will remain, like a rollercoaster - just without the children and the vomit.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thursday, February 26, 2009: Fitzy, Dave, Tanya and Garth

Just a quick note to say that I have disabled both the comments login and the annoying type-in-a-word thing. Captcha? Is that it? Anyway, you should be able to leave whatever comments you like without signing in or any other hassle. If I start getting ads for generic Miagra on my blog, I may have to change this; so don't abuse the privilege!

A condescending farewell
: Jeanette Fitzsimons, the matriarch of the green political movement in New Zealand and founding co-leader of the Green Party, has not died. In fact, she is just stepping down from the co-leadership in preparation for retiring at the next election, so I don't expect a eulogy from the Herald. However, nor do I expect the condescending pat on the head that yesterday's editorial offered. To be fair, the piece does salute her impressive personal characteristics - "high intelligence, intense application to problems and solutions, fairness, integrity, compassion, always civilised in debate".

The rest of the editorial makes two general claims worth thinking about. The first is that the Green party and the green movement have paid the price for a certain political naivety*, or at least a lack of political opportunism, and that this ought to be put at the feet of Fitzsimons. "Whether her purity has been good politics is a matter of argument," it says, and it surely is - after all, this is the fundamental dilemma of the principled politician. Of course, the Herald's grossly irresponsible reporting whenever a Green-led initiative came forward didn't exactly help. Take the so-called 'anti-smacking' bill. Say what you like about the revision - I have divided feelings on the matter - but it was originally picked up by Labour because people who had beaten their children had got off in court due to the wording of the law - "reasonable force". Perhaps Sue Bradford didn't do the best PR job, but the savagery of the media reaction was amazing to watch. The fact that a vast majority of MPs, including the National Party, ended up voting for the bill gives a more accurate impression of just how 'radical' the change was.

But secondly, the Green Party itself, the third-largest party in the New Zealand parliament is subtly dismissed by the editorial as little more than the green cliche of a collection of hippies. Talk about damned with faint praise: "the party "seems to have a durable appeal ... for its collegial, almost non-political style of its organisation"; "it has 'co-leaders', quaintly of each sex"; and it "gives its MPs room to pursue their own priorities" such as "Keith Locke['s] suspicions [!] of security services" - presumably the same security services which have been spending taxpayer money following and reporting on him even as an MP. And the idea that having the co-leadership (a system of government used in such "quaint" systems as the Roman republic) reserved for a man and a woman is "quaint" is fitting for the largest newspaper in a country where only 17 out of 64 of the coalition government's MPs are women.

Fitzsimons stepping down is apparently "an opportunity for the party to review its political approach," as their cause will be "harder to promote in a recession." If only we could have a similar commitment to the green politics from the Herald.

*This is the spelling from the Guardian Style Guide, Sophie.

Vivawatch: Why bother? Is anyone going to learn anything about the world, other than that the corrupt intertwining of the media and the consumption industry is as strong as ever, despite the recession? Buy, buy, buy! says the fashion-industrial complex, and the Herald gets straight into step! Coffee tables, $1000 dresses, cactus fountains, designer sunglasses, bottled spring water, um, jewel-encrusted cellphones, cars with a flower-holder, coffee tables... it doesn't matter what, just get on the phone to your latest stockist! Frankly, it sickens me and I refuse to be complicit.

Also, I seem to have lost my copy of Viva from yesterday.

Dear Sir: There are two interesting and thought-provoking letters to the editor today. But why would I want to tell you about them? Instead, here are two batshit-crazy ones:

David Harlock, of Red Beach, is sick of pretty much everything. "It is timely," he begins, "to remedy even more of the many unpopular blunders of the Labour government. The restoration of a credible honours system is especially vital." He does not say why it is vital, but what he says next ought to have been the first sign of madness for the person choosing what letters to include: "Jeanette Fitzsimons is worthy of being a dame, as is Helen Clark." There are three problems with this, of course. Firstly, the removal and replacement of the titles 'Sir' and 'Dame' was actually carried out in 1996, under Jim Bolger's National government. Oops! Secondly, I have a sneaking suspicion that neither Fitzsimons nor Clark, a confirmed republican, have any interest in being made a dame. And thirdly, why would David want the leaders of the blundering Labour/Green governments to be honoured? Perhaps this is all so drenched in irony that we can't see the forest for the trees. But he hasn't finished yet. David has his moment in the sun, and he's damned if he's not going to make hay! "The government should then reinstate the right of ultimate appeal to the Privy Council ... oust all this civil union nonsense ... scrap MMP and the lunacy of the list system." Is that all? It's hard to tell; after all, the Herald reserves the the right to edit, abridge or discard letters without notice.

Tanya Hart, of Beef + Lamb New Zealand, also has something to say. She's writing in a) because it's her job and b) to criticise the article in the Herald earlier this week than pointed out the massive energy inefficiencies of the beef industry. The article "provided no local context", she says - of course it didn't, as it was simply copy-and-pasted from the internet as far as I could tell.
Sorry to get on my vegetarian high horse, but her responses to the article are pretty disingenuous. Of course beef is more efficient here than in the massive food lots of of the US or Europe. But that doesn't mean it's efficient - we're still using cows for beef, right? the same as they are? Oh, but don't worry - "The meat industry is a participant in the Pastoral Greenhouse Gases Research Consortium, which aims to provide solutions for greenhouse gases produced by grazing animals." Well that's a relief - a consortium is at work. For God's sake. Then she says that "we are not eating more beef 'than we used to'", even though the article pretty clearly referred to worldwide consumption. For some reason, she points out that we are "well within the 'safe' guidelines outlined in the World Cancer Research Fund report", as if that had anything to do with what the article was talking about. And she finishes off with the best claim of all: "Eating less beef has serious nutritional implications - iron deficiency remains the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide." If you can't see what is wrong with that amazing abortion of a sentence, you may be iron deficient - go eat some beef.

The "Best of the Web": Every day the Herald has this small section on the Opinion page it consists of three different but equally important parts:

"Top 10 Stories": Want to know what everyone online wants to read about? No. 2 is "Ex-Crusader convicted of sex assault named". No. 3 is entitled "I came, I saw, I chundered".

"Your Views": Yesterday's topic? "Wanganui Mayor [and Editing the Herald favourite] Michael Laws says moves to add an 'h' to the city's name [ie, changing to the correct Maori spelling] will be resisted. What do you think?
  • "Don't worry about the 'H'," says Rob (Northern Territory [?]), "take the 'P' out of Wanganui first." As if those changes had anything in common.
  • Ray (Auckland) says that "The day I support correct pronunciation of Maori words is the day that Maori [all of them, presumably, possibly in a large stadium so we can make sure they have it right] pronounce English words correctly." Oh dear.
"Poll result": "2756 people responded to a poll on which asked: Is it true that women can't read maps?"
  • 54% - Yes
  • 46% - No

This truly is the best of the web. You know, people always say that the internet is like ultimate freedom, the freedom to be who you want, to do what you want to do and to say what you want to say. So when the anarchist revolution comes, you'll know where to find me - leading a contingent of armed riot police, beating a hippie with a truncheon.

Party on, Garth: I fear for Garth George. I think he may be losing his marbles. Two weeks in a row he wrote about fire engines. Before that, he wrote about taking a nice walk. At least he seems to be getting back to his usual self a bit today. He begins his piece by revealing his joy at his constitutional right to buy inefficient light bulbs, thanks to the National government's reversion of the least-offensive 'nanny-state' legislation of all time. But he's even more keen on kids eating pies! Perhaps he's been paid off by Beef + Lamb NZ (Beef + Lamb? Blamb or Leef?), but he's certainly keen on the right of our children to eat fatty, salty food at school. Why he doesn't take children's rights further - why should they be forced to go to school in the first place? - I don't know. But this isn't the most important thing about his column today.

That's because the second half of the column is dedicated to talking about a nice trip around the central North Island he took with his wife, and the delicious meals they had there. A delicious French onion soup in New Plymouth; mouth-watering lamb shanks in W[h]anganui; home-cooked food in Opunake. But best of all was a lamb and mint sauce pie, in Raetihi. Well that was a nice story, grandpa. "Now where was I..." Sure, I get the link - meat pies in tuck shops, meat pie in Raetihi. But it's really no more of a link than than some old man telling you about his time in the navy in the war, and then segueing seamlessly into talking about taking his boat out into the gulf to go fishing, and then about the lovely fish he ate the other night. And how am I supposed to stay mad with that?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Wednesday, February 25, 2009: Bumper midweek edition

A humble request: Before we really get started today, I would like to send out a heartfelt plea to journalists and headline-writers everywhere: please, please, stop using references to Slumdog Millionaire in any article that happens to mention India or Indians, however tangentially. Accordingly, the following phrases and their cognates are henceforth banned from all publications under my control:
  • slumdog millionaires
  • fun-slog millionaires
  • run-clog millionaires
  • slumdog billionaires
  • hotdog-bun millionaires

Three strikes and you're in Goff corner: A few weeks ago I unveiled the phenomenon of 'Goff corner' - so named because the original article so identified featured none other than the embattled Leader of the Opposition - a then-mysterious journalistic device consisting of the following elements:
  • An article on a topic of some significance, eg an important political issue
  • An emphasis that may not suit the 'party line' of the newspaper
  • A page somewhere in the middle of the section
  • A position in the bottom corner of the page, surrounded by a large ad (usually for a car company) on one side and with an article, possibly of marginal importance, above.
I would hereby like to identify an article in yesterday's paper as fulfilling the criteria - "Key rejects $30b estimate for three-strikes sentencing":
  • Topic of significance? A massive alleged cost blowout on a proposed government policy? Check.
  • Not 'party line'? Being nasty to John Key. Check.
  • Middling page? A6. Check.
  • Bottom corner? Check. Hemmed in by large car ad? Check.
I hereby confirm the spotting of a 'Goff corner' piece on February 24, 2009. The article itself is pretty poor: according to a policy thinktank, the 'three strikes' legislation (where a third 'serious offence' results in a mandatory 25 year sentence) proposed by Act will cost an extra $30 billion over 25 years. John Key says it is an overestimate. Now, maybe he's right, and it won't be that much - how much will it be, and how much is too much? $25bn? $20bn? $10bn? Frankly, they all seem like rather obscene amounts to me. People often seem to think that you can't weigh up things like law and order spending in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, but any money spent on imprisoning people for longer means money that can't go to health, education, tax cuts or hip-hop tours. John Key and the Herald nicely sidestep this issue with their don't ask, don't tell policy: the Herald don't ask how much it will cost, and John key doesn't tell them.

Reporting fail: Yesterday, a friend sent me this article to read, about a study in the US on differing responses to art in the brains of men and women. The BBC article is headlined "Art appreciation 'a gender issue'", and it goes on to say that they found men and women - to simplify the findings a bit - use different parts of the brain when they look at artworks. The authors of the study apparently explained this in terms of the (I thought) well-known theory that differences in the way men's and women's brains work can be explained by evolutionary pressures - men were out hunting for game, women were gathering nuts and berries, and reading That's Life.

So imagine my surprise when I read on the front page of today's herald about a study that has discovered that differences in the way men's and women's brains work can be explained by evolutionary pressures. The authors apparently came up with this theory after studying men's and women's brains while the brainholders were looking at art. What a coincidence, I thought, to read about this study the day after reading about almost the exact reverse experiment! [Sarcasm off.] Ok, I haven't read the study itself, but I am tempted to side with the BBC. I have only one idea why the Herald article (headlined "Yes, dear, scientists know why we're lost again" - punchy! - in the paper edition, but "Why women can't read maps" online) interpreted the study this way, other than that they wanted to justify the use of this 'hilarious' cartoon:

John Key gives offence: It's a tough job being prime minister. If you start sucking up to big business, small business starts complaining; if you start sucking up to anyone else, big business threatens to leave the country. Simon Collins, social issues reporter, notes today that there have been complaints about the demographic makeup of Friday's much-awaited Jobs Summit. Out of 194 attendees, 118 are from the business sector! That's too many, say community groups. Out of those 118, 62 are from 'big business'. That's too many, say small-business groups. I suppose I can see these people's points, although I'm not sure I would have expected anything else given the circumstances. But the complaints go on. "The list includes 165 men and just 30 women," says Collins; seeing there are 194 attendees, presumably one person is both. Only two people are of Pacific Island descent, and "Fletcher Building chief executive Jonathan Ling will be the sole flagbearer for the Asian community", because presumably we only care about jobs for people of our race - oh well, at least 'the Asians' got a chief executive of one of New Zealand's major corporations! The Pacific Islanders got the boss of the company that makes taps!

Honestly, all that potentially says is that certain groups are underrepresented in top economic positions. But this is a summit designed to stem growth in unemployment - do we really care who talks about it as long as it gets done? Honestly, people will complain about anything, these days...

Say cheese: Yes, it's not exactly news to point out that newspapers use a lot of stupid photos - say, a picture of a girl eating cheese - so that they look less like a bunch of scary words and more like a comforting television. But it's one thing putting, say, a stock photo of a frog next to an article about frogs. It's completely another to massively buy into government propaganda via a photograph, and today's article on the government promising extra funds to support the Plunketline parenting advice helpline does just that. I have no problem with Plunketline, and think it is probably an excellent decision. But that doesn't mean that the Herald has to run a large photo (unfortunately only in the print edition) of Health Minister Tony Ryall (yes, him again) holding and attempting to entertain a baby (who, incidentally, bears a worrying resemblance to Chucky from the Child's Play movies) with a toy mobile phone. Baby-kissing is the oldest of political cliches, and we get more than enough of it in party propaganda come election time without the Herald ramming it down our throats now.

Young people these days, what what: Newsflash: Old woman thinks kids are spending too much time on that computing thingamyjig these days. That old woman is Lady Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Oxford. And that computing thingamyjig is your computer where you are addicted to Facebook, Twitter and mindless blogs (and possibly pornography, though she doesn't specifically mention that). These phenomena are 'infantilising" the adult minds of the 21st century... "devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance"... "the immediacy of an experience trumps any regard for the consequences"...

Oh, sorry Lady! My infantilised mind couldn't keep up. Anyway, funnily enough, people always say these sorts of things about new technologies. You may have heard of the Greek philosopher Socrates, best known for appearing in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. He never wrote down a word of his philosophy, as he thought the written word was inaccurate and unhelpful and would, among other things, destroy the human memory. He also had to go and fight wars all the time and was able to laze around thinking all day because slaves did all his work. So maybe Twitter and Facebook will ruin society. But maybe, just maybe, they will usher in a glorious new era where humanity conquers the stars. It's a toss-up.

Shortage of skilled workers!: In an odd 17-line 'article', the Herald declares that "concerns are growing about finding staff with the right skills to serve spectators" at the 2011 Rugby World cup. After all, they don't want just any hospitality staff - they want people "with a consistently high standard of service skill and the right attitude". What a tremendous opportunity for young people to pick up such key stadium hospitality skills as:
  • not serving a hot dog to someone who just ordered hot chips
  • not spitting in the food
  • literacy skills enabling them to easily and rapidly distinguish between a bottle of Coke and a bottle of Coke Zero
  • washing their hands after using the toilet
  • not swearing at customers
What a whoppertunity for these lucky devils. The best part is how they will all be able to keep their jobs and use their new-found skills after the event ends.

'Cheap vices' stay popular: According to popular wisdom, so called 'cheap vices', such as alcohol, takeaways and streetwalking prostitutes, tend to stay popular in times of recession, when we naturally cut back our spending on fancy, fruit-infused alcohol, restaurant meals and high-class hookers. According to retail writer Maria Slade, figures just out confirm this is happening in New Zealand right now. The headline screams "'Cheap vices' stay popular in hard times", and the articles begins by stating that "Alcohol and fast food sales holding up as consumers spend more time at home." The graph accompanying the article in fact shows that liquor sales have dipped by about $4-5m (that's just reading from a small graph - the number isn't quoted in the article, surprise surprise) while takeaway sales have stayed about the same. Looking further along the graph, sales of (or, presumably, in - thanks Herald Graphic) supermarkets and grocery stores are up $45m, despite the drop in booze sales. Some of this increase can no doubt be blamed on rising food prices, but to me it makes the headline and article's emphasis on booze 'n' burgers a bit suspect.

Let me emphasise - alcohol sales were down. Sales of recreational goods were up by about $15m. So it seems to me that a better headline would have been "'Cheap virtues' stay popular in hard times". But then no one wants to read about virtue.

Massaging the statistics: Isn't public transport great? Yes, we all love it when other people use public transport, so I was delighted to see the headline "Buses lead the way as commuters leave cars at home". At last, I thought, a radical increase in use of buses and trains that will encourage more development! We've hit the tipping point, people! But then I had a look at the actual table of statistics next to the article and was less than excited. Total passenger trips on public transport increased by 8%, a reasonable chunk of which presumably corresponded with population growth in the rapidly growing Auckland region. Still, even if it was, per capita, a 5% growth, that would be pretty good, right? Well, remember what else happened in this period:
  • petrol prices hit record highs
  • the multi-million dollar Northern Express busway was expanded
  • a massive recession unrivalled in living memory hit the world
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button received 13 Oscar nominations, in clear violation of God's law
My point is that if you can't expect a rise in public transport use when the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse arrive, when can you expect it? I hate to constantly appear a pessimist, but I can't share the Herald's excitement. Then again, now that I think about it, there is a different interpretation: maybe all the rich people stopped driving and caught the bus, but all the poor people had to stop bussing and start walking instead. That's a much brighter possibility.

Still to come today!:

A condescending farewell!



Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tuesday, February 24, 2009: Totally sweet blog

Sorry folks, no blog today. Instead of editing the Herald, I'm editing a thesis.

But don't fret - I have saved up a couple of choice pieces for tomorrow's bumper blog. And in case you are desperate for a Herald blog fix, try:

Or, you know, just read "Your Views" like you do every other day.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Monday, February 23, 2009: Tours, ostriches and diplomacy

To tour or not to tour, that is the question: Unlike Hamlet, John Key seems decisive on the question of New Zealand's upcoming cricket tour to Zimbabwe; he appears determined to prevent the New Zealand cricket team from touring despite today's appeal from David Coltart, the new Zimbabwean Sports Minister, to let the tour take place. Normally I wouldn't care (let alone post on a blog) about sports, but this is a fairly exceptional issue; the government is basically threatening to ban a group New Zealanders from travelling overseas, a ban theoretically ultimately enforced by taking their passports. I am unaware of any other country where the New Zealand government does this (although, to be honest, I haven't done any research), which makes you wonder whether the situation really calls for it. But I digress; this is a news-rage blog, not a ... news blog.

What I really wanted to point out here - and, to be fair, this is more newsmusement (another coinage*) than news-rage - is that while Mr Coltart, a member of the anti-Mugabe Movement for Democratic Change, asks John Key to give the new government a chance, and some support, on the front page, page A16 throws up the headline "Mugabe birthday celebrated in style". A succession of elaborate (for Zimbabwe) parties will be held in Mugabe's honour including a gala dinner featuring "Nigerian hip-hop star 2Face", and the slaughter of dozens of animals. A local politics professor said "the birthday party was the latest of many signals that the ruling Zanu-PF party did not intend to respect the power-sharing agreement..." Perhaps another sign is that, while Zanu-PF keeps the presidency, the MDC gets the pivotal role of... Minister of Sport. Sorry, Mr Coltart, you have been a wee bit undermined.

* Actually, 'newsmusement' gives one result - a disgruntled blogger describing Fox News as Fox Newsmusement in 2007. Funnily enough, it hasn't caught on - until now.

The financial ostriches: Now I don't claim to know how the economic system works, and I find the large disagreements that occur between trained economists as pretty good evidence that they don't either. One argument that tends to go round - although, it must be said, not so much from economists - is that recessions are just self-reinforcing mass hysteria. That is, someone starts thinking there is going to be a recession, other people hear it and pretty soon there is one simply because everyone believes there is. Now, certainly there are elements of this: supposedly people, when told there is a recession, cut back their personal spending just when an economic boost is needed, thus making things worse. But I am sceptical of how far this can be taken - at some point we become the ostrich that buries its head in the sand when a predator approaches. (That's not actually true of course - ostriches run away like any other animal. But it still makes a handy metaphor.)

I mention this today because of another useless poll, this time carried out by Research New Zealand, on how New Zealanders feel about the recession. It turns out 49% of people feel their financial situation is worse than a year ago, and RNZ director Emanuel Kalafatelis concludes that "while the recession is biting for about half of New Zealanders, the negative effects of the recession may have peaked for now for others." Mr Kalafatelis (or Herald reporter Isaac Davison, it's not clear which) then comes up with this gem: "Further evidence that the effect of the recession may be slowing was the drop in the number of people who believed the state of the economy was hurting their financial situation." I'm sorry, but how is a poll result evidence the recession is slowing? It's like saying that climate change isn't happening because 63% of respondents don't think it is, or that the holocaust didn't happen because people didn't think it did. Like I said, I'm no economist and I don't know what is going to happen any more than you do, but I suspect we're not going to find out with a poll.

Then again, it seems that Mr Kalafatelis is a bit confused in general: "I don't think people have got a ruler out and compared their bank statements with how they were a year ago." Indeed, Mr Kalafatelis; they probably used a calculator.

And the Oscar goes to...: In the category of 'Best impression of a diplomat by someone whose main qualification is losing-an-election-but-being-married-to-someone-to-won-one', the winner is: Hillary Clinton! [Applause]. That most desperate of political dynasties, the Clintons, has now taken over the position of Secretary of State, and Hillary is evidently using her "celebrity" to get things done. Now, I'm not saying that Hillary is stupid - she's obviously got some brains. Her predecessor, Condaleezza Rice, whatever you thought of the Bush Administration's foreign policy, was clearly a top-class intellect. Before her, Madeleine Albright was a senior professor in International Relations at Georgetown, and then the US ambassador to the United Nations. By contrast, Clinton's international experience seems to have consisted of entertaining wives of foreign dignitaries, and not leaving her husband and moving to the Caribbean. I'm not trying to be sexist here; as I just pointed out, the two previous secretaries of state were exceptionally well qualified and remarkably intelligent women.

The problem is that Clinton has the job (indirectly, obviously) because she has celebrity, as the Herald headline today implies: "Clinton sprinkles stardust in first outing as secretary of state". The rather fawning article (from Reuters) goes into some detail about her trip to southeast Asia. "Clinton generally got a rock star welcome when she punched through the diplomatic bubble to meet ordinary people," it gushes. She "made a point about the necessity of accepting the outcome of a fair election, even when you lose"; except, presumably, if Hamas happen to win. After Bush, the US could no doubt use some decent PR with people in the streets of foreign countries. But forgive me if I'm doubtful that Hillary's "star power" will go a great way in wowing Benjamin Netanyahu, Kim Jong-il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or the Chinese leadership - that is, the actual people the US needs to deal with. "With the smell of open-air sewers in the air [in Jakarta], Clinton took in small-scale projects to purify water, recycle rubbish into handicrafts and offer health care to mothers and babies. 'This, to me, is what diplomacy is about.'" Let's just hope the Iranians agree.

Double-take-inducing sentence of the day: From an article about an 11-year-old boy who shot his father's pregnant girlfriend: "The shotgun, which apparently belonged to Brown [the boy], is designed for children [!!] and Bongivengo [the district attorney] said such weapons did not have to be registered [!!]." Children's shotguns don't kill people; children kill people. Jesus. Christ.

When bad news... goes good: "Tiger kills loggers", says the headline above a tiny World Report article. Oh no!, I thought. The latest in a spate of wild cat attacks! (Although this time there is no hint of the Lion Man's involvement.) But then there's this: "A Sumatran tiger has killed two illegal loggers in western Indonesia..." Now, I don't believe in capital punishment, and I don't particularly wish harm on any person, least of all people so lacking in life possibilities that they have to resort to illegal logging in a forest inhabited by angry tigers. And yes, they're only doing it to keep up with Western demand for tropical hardwoods and hamburgers. But does it make me a bad person that I am much happier with this headline than I would have been with "Loggers kill tiger"?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday, February 20, 2009: Swearing at women, teens, children and ducks

Greedy women sabotage NZ economy: One of my readers, a public servant from Wellington, mentioned to me yesterday that he was unsure as to the actual target of the witty scalpel that is news-rage journalism - was it the news itself, or the Herald's reporting of it? The answer is, of course, mainly the latter. But there is no hard and fast rule about this. Quite often, the reporting on an issue is blogworthy because it doesn't bring out how bad (or good), say, a policy or an event is. At other times, the Herald might bring up an interesting issue, but doesn't get its teeth properly stuck in. And this is sort of what happened today.

"Govt kills pay-equity enquiries" says the headline. Apparently, the government has halted "two investigations aimed at improving the pay of women as it tries to save money by controlling public sector salaries." According to the article, female social workers at Child, Youth and Family are paid 9.5% less than male colleagues, a statistic that I find baffling in a government department in 2009. Unless it somehow represents some consistent level of seniority or extra qualifications that the male social workers happen to have (and that would raise its own questions), then I can't understand how this situation has been allowed to come to pass. Yet the investigation into this has been shot down by State Services Minister Tony Ryall (yes, him again), and over the course of the article he performs a magic trick that would have Paul Daniels spinning in his grave, if he were dead - he mysteriously, and without wires or camera tricks, turns a discussion about pay equity for women into a government press release about sustainable public sector pay!

I have some sympathy for Ryall; it can't be a fun job when your main goal is to keep down your employees' pay. But this is a different issue, and he does himself an injustice by seemingly ignoring it. "Mr Ryall said when issuing the new pay instructions that there was a worsening financial outlook and the state sector had to 'play its part'." Unfortunately for women, who according to Labour lag 12% behind men in pay, it seems that some people have a bigger part to play than others.

Fearful teens - exposed!: I have criticised the Herald for socially irresponsible reporting before, but an article on the front page today really takes the cake, as it were. Not only is the fact that a scared young couple left their baby at Middlemore Hospital and cheesed it deemed front page news, but Elizabeth Binning, police reporter, also found it necessary to release details of them the health authorities evidently recommended that ought not to, for fear of identifying the mother. "A 'source' told the Herald the mother was a 14-year-old who had tried to hide the pregnancy from her family. Authorities would not confirm the girl's age for fear of identifying her, but did say she was a teenager." Congratulations, Elizabeth! You not only published unconfirmed hearsay, you published unconfirmed hearsay that may harm a frightened girl who presumably could do with some support. What a heroic, crusading journalist!

In defence of swearing: Yesterday I nearly wrote about an opinion piece in the paper arguing that swearing in general, and swearing at children in particular, was a scourge on par with physical abuse of children. I eventually decided not to, partly due to laziness but mainly due to not really being that keen on swearing at kids. Today, however, an omen appeared in the form of a letter from Lorna Clauson of Papakura - and I knew something had to be done. "For years," she says, "I have tried to find ways to make people acknowledge that using these disgusting expressions offends much of the community ... I have never allowed anyone to use an obscenity in my presence and when faced with my displeasure the offender is usually embarrassed and often apologetic." I can safely say then, Lorna, that you have never met the patron saint of swearing, Mr Stephen Fry.
  • "Swearing is a really important part of one's life; it would be impossible to imagine going through life without swearing, and without enjoying swearing." [video]
  • "The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or of a lack of verbal interest is just fucking lunatic."
  • "Or they say, 'It's not necessary.' As if that should stop one doing it. Things not being necessary is what makes life interesting."
I'm going to stick with Stephen here. I love swearing, if not especially at children - although Dave Chapelle saying "Fuck you, son" to his kid on a Chapelle's Show skit was comedy gold. Sorry Lorna, but I don't think this particular plague will be brought to a halt anytime soon.

On a related matter: I was shocked, amused and appalled yesterday to read some disgusting language in an article about the duck pond at the Auckland Botanic Gardens. Apparently they have to be dredged thanks to a lethal (not really) mix of festering bread and... "duck poo". That's right, New Zealand's newspaper of record likes to refer to 'it' as "poo". In fact, excretion reporter Eloise Gibson rolls out the 'p' word three times in the short (but still far too long) article. Now, I'm hardly demanding that they say 'shit' instead, although that is what I and, I imagine, most of you would use in conversation. However, in acknowledgement of the fact that most of their readers are in fact more than 10 years old, surely they could say 'faeces', or 'excrement' or even the euphemistic 'droppings'. Come on, Eloise, don't make me contact Lorna...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thursday, February 19, 2009: Fair and balanced edition

Sorry for the late post today; I blame the humidity.

Fair and balanced #1: For too long tenants have been repressing landlords, so it's about time that the new government did something to "make the balance more even". That is the position Anne Gibson, property editor, takes on the front page today, heralding (no pun intended) the National government's changes to a Labour bill on tenancy law. Specifically, Housing Minister Phil Heatley is aiming at scrapping proposals that would "limit tenant liability for property damage, pay for professional tenant advocates in Tenancy Tribunal hearings and ban real estate agents from charging letting fees" - proposals that, according to the Herald, were "some of the ... most controversial of the previous government's time in power." That's funny, I was a tenant and I never heard of them. Hmm.

Anyway, Ms Gibson reports that "concerns had been raised about some provisions of the bill". Who raised these concerns, I don't know, because she refuses to tell us, but I suspect it may have something to do with Andrew King, of the Auckland Property Investor's Association - an unbiased lobby group seeking to ensure equitable relationships between tenants and landlords (not really). Mr King is interviewed at length, as is the minister, but Helen Gatonyi, a tenant advocate, gets two short (and weak) paragraphs - with a last-word rebuttal from Mr King - and the Labour spokesperson, assuming there is one at the moment in that fiasco of a party, gets nothing at all. Mr Heatley is "concerned that some specific provisions may deter future provision of private rental housing." I'm not certain why this explains the reintroduction of so-called letting fees, but I guess the property editor knows best.

I'm not an idiot. I know that newspapers have demographics, and that in, say, Britain, this kind of article would fit right into the Daily Telegraph. But the point is that in Britain you don't have to read the Telegraph - you can read the Times or the Independent or the Guardian or the Daily Sport or whatever it is that matches with your prejudices. The Herald, in terms of a major daily newspaper, is all we have - and as such it wields a lot of power over how people perceive issues. Most people here don't think, as they would in Britain, "Oh, well that newspaper would say that." I firmly believe that, if National's changes in the proposed tenancy law are justified then there is no need for Fox News-style weasel words like "concerns have been raised" or "proposals are seen as less pro-tenant" rather than 'more pro-landlord', and something approaching equal time can be given to supporters and opponents of the legislation. Is that really too much to ask?

Listen to your mother: "Baby boom goes against mothers' advice" says the headline on the front page. For the sixth year in a row, says Statistics NZ, the proportion of teenage girls having babies rose, and Mansoor Khawaja, the chief demographer has this to say: "I reckon [always an indicator of sound advice] they just didn't agree with their mothers." But ask the mothers themselves and they tell a different story. "I'm stuck with one and it was a total accident. I wasn't really thinking to rebel," says 18-year-old Emily Collins. Meanwhile, a Waikato university demography professor says, "We haven't really got a massive trend, and we are really looking at the tea leaves trying to work out what is going on." Definitely a rebellion going on. Meanwhile, the end of the article links increasing birth rates to payouts to new mothers, paid parental leave, increases in family assistance and a buoyant economy. I suppose that "More babies - not sure why" doesn't make a particularly catchy headline.

How to fill your newspaper: Newsflash! - something may or may not have happened! That is the gist of the story taking up the top half of A3 today. To be fair to the Herald, it seems that something actually did happen - it just wasn't very interesting:

* The time: last night.
* The place: Zion Wildlife Gardens, near Whangarei.
* The thing: wild animal bites man a bit.
* The unrelated story used by the Herald to pad out a nothing article: The ups and downs of TV's "Lion Man", who used to work there but doesn't anymore and he wasn't very good at running a zoo but it apparently made for entertaining TV and then got convicted of beating up his wife "after he found her in bed with a man and a woman".

So anyway, the Herald somehow heard about this event. They called the park, where "an office manager who said her name was Bridget [or was it??]" denied any attack. St John have no record, they say, of any ambulance being called to the park. A possible cover up? "Police were not involved," meaning that the vicious lion (or tiger!) could still be on our streets, ready to strike again. I await the outcry from the Sensible Sentencing Trust. But, thanks to the Herald's intrepid reporting, the truth came out. A doctor at the local hospital confirmed that a man had been admitted after being bitten on the knee by "a large cat". How large, he does not say, allowing us all room for wild speculation. Anyway, it's a happy ending - the man is in a stable condition.

Of course, that story didn't take up much space; so Elizabeth Binning, police reporter (despite the police being "not involved"!) has to improvise with the story of the trials and tribulations of the lovable "Lion Man". But imagine the sub-editor's dismay when the story came in at only 422 words! Ever resourceful, he or she came up with the perfect answer: pictures. So a picture twice the size of the article graces the page, showing two lions with something to hide. Another picture shows a sign saying "Zion Wildlife Gardens - 1km on right", despite the arrow clearly pointing left. The plot thickens. All I can say is that, in this story, no one comes out looking good.

Fair and balanced #2: If there is one issue that is consistently well reported, it is drug policy - the public "debate" on drugs makes the "open debate" on teen suicide seem like a talkback show about the haka. (Too obscure? Sorry. I just mean drug policy is not very well debated.) The drug policy symposium that caused such a fuss last week began yesterday, with Associate Health Minister and big Editing the Herald fan Peter Dunne making it crystal-meth-clear, as if it weren't already, that the government would not be relaxing laws on cannabis or any other drug. Now, that's fine - no government, and certainly no conservative government, ever won votes by 'going soft' on drugs.

What is less tolerable is the weak, weak reporting on the issue. "Too many mental health problems, respiratory diseases and social issues related [sic] to cannabis for the Government to consider legalising it," NZPA reported Dunne as saying. Mental health problems, eh? Such as? Oh, you don't actually have anything? Ok, well, I'm a reporter so I'm just going forget about it. The other two speakers the article quotes are the Deputy Police Commissioner - guess what he thinks - and Sandeep Chawla, the United Nations director of policy analysis and public affairs at the Office of Drugs and Crime. He has some interesting things to say. "International efforts had held illicit drug use to less than 5 per cent of the world adult population", which sounds like just the kind of bogus, unverifiable claim one would expect from one of the world's top bureaucrats. "...Opium cultivation and production has been limited to just one or two countries in the main", although one of those countries (Afghanistan) has been growing it on pretty much every square metre of its soil. Economies of scale, Sandeep! Most humorously, "he said that containment did not mean the problem had been solved, and a thriving black market in drugs had emerged." Oh dear, I wonder why a black market emerged. Anyway, rant over. I look forward to tomorrow, when presumably other speakers will balance out those three, and be fully and responsibly reported in the Herald. Amirite?

Naive claim of the day: From the Herald editorial on the repeal of the Electoral Finance Act: "Corporate donors probably do not contribute to political parties for any other reason than to see that the country is soundly governed."

Inaccurate headline of the day: "Better health care adds 6 years to life". From the article itself: "A Ministry of Health study has found that Kiwis are living six years longer than 25 years ago, with two of the extra years due to better health services."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Wednesday, February 18: Midweek tidbits

Second thoughts on boot camp: Yesterday I wrote about the government's new law and order policies targeting youth offending. Although I doubted that it would work, I did say that it couldn't be any worse than locking them up. However, I always reserve the right to change my mind at short notice, and now I think that the boot camp model is a terrible idea. Why? Well, any policy that gets this much support on "Your Views" must be a disaster waiting to happen.

Our 'waning' love affair with gambling: At the risk of seeming to have a personal vendetta, I must once again point your attention to an article on gambling rates by none other than Simon Collins, social affairs reporter. "New figures confirm that New Zealanders' love affair with gambling is running out of steam," he begins, lovingly turning two cliches into a wonderful mixed metaphor. Now that would be bad enough, but the rest of the article is full of what might charitably be called 'creative interpretations' of the actual statistics.

The average New Zealander lost $478.30 on gambling in the last year-to-June - I lost $0, which presumably means that one of you lost $956.60 - a massive $1.35 less than the previous year. So that's my first problem - I personally would say that the amounts stayed pretty much the same, rather than 'waned', but then I'm no social affairs reporter. It's not the only dodgy use of this statistic - a lot of the variation in per capita gambling losses since 2004 has apparently been due to the law banning smoking in public spaces, rather than people wanting to gamble any more or less for any other reason. I mean, you could tell everyone that when you sit at a pokie machine you will get an electric shock each time you push the 'play' button - but if gambling losses went down after that, it might tell you more about our aversion to electric shocks than our "waning love affair with gambling." What's more, although pokie losses were down a huge 1.3% in the last period, losses on sports and racing betting were up 1.4%, and Lotto and its ilk scammed an extra 4.7% from the gullible and the weak of will. So, to stay with Mr Collins's extended love affair analogy, it's all a bit like a guy who tells his girlfriend that he just doesn't want to be seeing anyone at the moment, and then immediately shacks up with another bird. Now that's journalism.

Pointing and laughing at the SST: This isn't really anything that happened today, but a letter to the editor reminded me to laugh at the Sensible Sentencing Trust - basically a group that complains publicly whenever a convicted criminal doesn't get the chair. There's a lot that's funny/annoying about them: their euphemistic name (sensible = long and in some kind of pit); their ubiquity in the media whenever a "controversial" sentence is handed down. OK, that's only two things. But the recent big news was that the SST's bluff was rather spectacularly called by the trial and sentencing of Bruce Emery, the middle-aged, middle-class white man who chased a 15-year-old boy with a knife after he had seen the youth tagging outside Emery's property. Emery chased the boy and his friend 300 metres down the road, until the boy fell over - at which point Emery fatally stabbed him, walked back home, cleaned the knife and failed to call either an ambulance or the police.

Enough has been said about whether or not the verdict (he was found not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter) and the sentence (4 years and 3 months, considerably below the median sentence for manslaughter) were just; what I found interesting was the SST's reaction. It was the ultimate dilemma for the group. Do they side with the victim of a violent crime, whose killer was given just over four years in prison, minus parole? Or do they side with the middle-class white man - no doubt the main demographic of the SST's members and supporters - who took the law into his own hands against a teenage Maori vandal? As it happened, they nailed their colours firmly to the mast by coming down on the side of the latter. Garth McVicar, the spokesman, claimed (possibly for the first time ever) that the violent killer should not have gone to prison at all. So let's all point and laugh at the Sensible Sentencing Trust, and hope that this is the beginning of the end of lazy journalists padding out their law and order articles by quoting this reprehensible hypocrite.

Reading comprehension: Robert Muldoon was known for three things: being Prime Minister of New Zealand; being a bit of a bastard; and a knack for the brilliant, withering putdown. And calling a snap election while drunk. OK, so that's four things. Anyway, one of his famous quotes was this, about the continued emigration of New Zealanders to Australia: "New Zealanders who move to Australia raise the intelligence [or IQ] of both countries." Australian readers may have to read that sentence a couple of times; unfortunately, the marketing staff at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia don't seem to have done so. Their ad in the Herald today starts with a large, bold reproduction of the above quote, before encouraging potential emigrants to open an Australian bank account with them before they leave - apparently this is what "the most intelligent Kiwis" do. Now, what I suspect is going on here is that the marketing people got a little tricky for their own good. In an attempt at a nudge-nudge-wink-wink joke at the expense of Australians (ie New Zealanders will be raising the intelligence there), they have missed Muldoon's main point: that only the stupidest New Zealanders would want to move to Australia in the first place. Ironically, the bank has gone on to prove the other part of Muldoon's conjecture.

Weekly Viva watch: And the award for most bizarre reference to the effects of the recession goes to.... Viva!: "If the recession is getting you down or just making you anxious, may we suggest buying this sculptured cactus water fountain by Danish designer Steffen Schmelling?" What the hell? Yes, take heed Fisher & Paykel employees and Telecom call centre staff: go and spend your severance money on a designer fountain - a snap at $344. Unfortunately, from the photo the fountain doesn't look big enough to drown yourself in.

On the next page, in the same 'advertorial', is this gem: "Environmental consciousness is an everyday thing for some people, but often it's hard to apply laudable principles right across our lives." It's lucky then that a company is now making hair brushes from sustainable wood - the ultimate in passionate commitment to saving the planet. Obviously I have nothing against using sustainable wood, but what are other brushes made out of? Tropical hardwoods, just for the hell of it? And just in case you thought you would be sacrificing brush quality for warm fuzzies, the bristles contain "crystal ions to recondition hair". Well that's a relief.

Wednesday is the worst day of the week: it means there is a whole week until the next Viva.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tuesday, February 17: Teens, computers, "weed", and mad science

When teens go bad: Just when you thought our country couldn't get any more like Ricki Lake, here comes boot camp! The government has announced changes in the youth justice system, which will lead to youth offenders on their 'last chance' attending a military-style course where, according to the pictures I have seen, they will pick up heavy poles, carry them for a while, and put them down again. Presumably, weapons training will be left out of the syllabus. Now, as I see it, there are two different sorts of objection one might have here: a) it's wrong to force young people to do this, and b) it won't work. The first one doesn't really wash with me. Although, I suppose, I wish it weren't necessary to take kids when they should be at school and socialising normally and make them carry poles around, the reality is that that is a false dilemma. If it's a choice between sending them to a youth prison and a reasonably progressive (by which I mean something less like Full Metal Jacket and more like Police Academy) boot camp, then surely the latter is an improvement.

Whether it works - by which I assume we mean stopping recidivism - is another question. A sidebar column mentions a similar project in Counties-Manukau that claims a 58 percent reduction in total offending from graduates, but Labour warns that boot camps have "previously been found to have a 92 percent reoffending rate", so who really knows. But again, imprisoning kids is hardly known for reducing recidivism, so maybe it's worth a shot. On a lighter note, Labour also warn that boot camps will merely produce "better, faster criminals". Well, if the footage I have seen so far is anything to go by, they will certainly be better and faster at carrying poles - possibly a future boon for the construction industry.

Computers in schools: I've always been slightly suspicious of the use of computers in schools. I imagine this is largely because, as far as I can remember, I have never learned anything at school on a computer. Classes where computers were used were more of an excuse for playing games (Oregon Trail! I still can't believe that they thought we would learn anything other than how to play Oregon Trail) or watching videos (caesium exploding in water, over and over again). Nonetheless, the principal of Blockhouse Bay primary school is claiming that increased access to computers is the reason behind a significant drop in truancy. I don't have any access to figures, so I can't really dispute that finding - although one could always wonder what the causal relationships really are. In some sense it is clearly better that kids are in class, even if they are not really learning anything, rather than roaming the streets. But I'm not exactly delighted if getting kids to school is our foremost goal, after which we engage in a hearty round of backslapping and go back to playing Minesweeper and watching Youtube.

Adding insult to insult: The stakes have been raised over the funding of the drug policy conference by the Open Society Institute (see yesterday's post) - Patrick Gower, political reporter, has decided to take on international drug kingpin George Soros. To be fair, he is only taking up a rather ridiculous remark from PM John Key, who has "now learnt of his [Soros's] desire to have everyone smoking weed", but whether this throwaway remark justifies the headline, "'Weed' advocate can sponsor drug event" is questionable. Whether the OSI is actually advocating mandatory marijuana smoking for all, or whether it is pointing out the tremendous economic and social costs involved in pursuing the 'war on drugs' is a question Mr Gower does not care to investigate. Then again, when the prime minister doesn't care, why should he, am I right? It's not like journalists have a critical role to play in questioning the political class. Perhaps I can take some heart from the fact that, this time, Gower's article is stuck down in 'Goff corner', hemmed in fittingly by a large ad for that addictive and harmful, but legal (and delicious), drug, alcohol.

Mad science: If you haven't been keeping up with your peer-reviewed scientific journals, you may not have heard of the field of geo-engineering - basically, massive engineering projects that alter the way the planet's processes function. The primary objective at the moment seems to be halting or, at least, minimising the effect of climate change, a worthy goal in anyone's book. Some of the projects geo-engineers have suggested include:
  • wrapping Greenland in a giant blanket to slow melting ice
  • mixing seawater with "huge, wave-powered pumps" to help absorb carbon dioxide
  • placing a giant sun shield in space to reduce the strength of the sun's rays (an idea originally devised by Mr Burns)
  • an "orbital power plant"
Naturally, science types have a massive hard-on for such ideas. But some pessimists are worried that these crazy, untested ideas are 'crazy' and 'untested'. Frankly, most of mankind's fiddling with ecosystems hasn't worked that well; are we really sure we know what will happen if we start churning up the world's oceans like a giant spa pool? I honestly wouldn't be surprised if one day we discovered 'Oops, all the fish have died of sea-sickness.' Sorry for being a negative Nelly,
but I'm concerned that schemes directly modelled on ideas of a mad scientist aren't the best approach - not least because they don't exactly encourage us to change the habits that got us into this mess in the first place.

The secret of happiness: From the 'Massey University study' casefiles, a study (actually in Britain) has 'discovered', following a survey of 154 students, that people who spend money on 'experiences' are happier than people who spend money on 'things'. Yes, it sounds bogus, but what I found interesting was that the newspaper (originally the Telegraph) seemingly tried to verify this by contacting celebrities, an approach that dovetails nicely with that of the Herald. Michael Palin loves sitting in a cafe. Well, I guess that's an experience - although surely the coffee is a 'thing'. Feminist-turned-Celebrity Big Brother-contestant Germaine Greer has also revealed "the secret of [her] contentment" - her dishwasher. Also a thing, although apparently it allows her more time "to do enjoyable things" - which are experiences, not things. Richard Branson also likes a thing - a moleskin notebook and ballpoint pen - although we might be sceptical that the secret of his contentment is in fact his notebook and not his collection of luxury homes and bevy of beautiful women. Although, seeing women aren't things, they clearly count as experiences as well. All in all, then, this article was definitely not a waste of anyone's time. Including, thanks to me, yours.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Monday, February 16, 2009: Drugs, princes and roundtables

Free drugs: I have written before about the National government cancelling conferences and thereby angering the conference industry. Well, the latter can take a breath of fresh air, as the Ministry of Health is part-funding a conference on drug policy. However, the 'big story' here is that the conference will also be part-funded by "one of the world's leading advocates of decriminalising marijuana use" - the Open Society Institute, founded by the billionaire George Soros, previously best known for being the currency speculator who allegedly precipitated the "Asian Crisis" in the late 1990s. So these are the facts of the case: drug policy conference being held; government funding said conference; liberal non-government organisation (NGO) also partially funding conference; founder of NGO in favour of drug reform. Not much of a story in my book.

Of course, as usual, my problem here is not with the news, but with the reporting. Firstly, the headline screams "Govt, pro-cannabis billionaire jointly fund drug conference, but I'm unsure of how they know or why they care he is pro-cannabis. He is (allegedly) pushing for law reform, not pushing drugs; it's like the old trick of calling pro-choice campaigners 'pro-abortion'. Secondly, the funding isn't from George Soros - it's from the Open Policy Institute, which supports many different causes including democracy, human rights, public health and education. Without wanting to appear as if I'm on the OPI payroll, it's surely dismissive to write about their contribution as if it is a campaign contribution for drug legalisation. Why this ought to be "embarrassing" for the government, as Patrick Gower, political reporter, claims, is unclear. I suppose the idea is that the government is against drug liberalisation, and they are 'joining forces' with people in favour. This raises the question of why you would hold a drug conference at all if all your were going to do was sit around holding hands and saying 'drugs are bad'. Yet this seems to be precisely what the government wants - the conference is being opened by my vote for greatest living New Zealander, Peter Dunne, "who would be telling those attending that 'the Government absolutely does not support the decriminalisation of cannabis and is committed to a strong enforcement of the law.'" So don't get any crazy ideas about open discussions.

I'll ignore for now the case for decriminalising marijuana - if you're interested in the arguments, here is an excellent paper that sums it up in a political context. It's just dispiriting that it's not just our politicians who want to avoid any discussion on the issue, but (implicitly) our media as well. So much for the Fourth Estate.

Hypocrite prince: Now, I'm no fan of royalty in general, let alone the British (aka German) royal family. Look at them: delusional, aristocratic 'people's princess'; racist old man; playboy prince keen on borrowing army helicopters to get to parties; ginger Nazi idiot; and so on. Then there is Prince Charles. He makes it into the paper today because an "eco-tour" of South America, where he will be trying to raise awareness of environmental issues, involves a private jet "with a VIP lounge, master suite, satellite phone, printer [!], fax [!!] and luxury leather seats". The trip will cost up to $820,000, or 322 tonnes of carbon - depending on your choice of currency. Naturally, the prince is being labelled a hypocrite, but I have two issues with such a claim.

Firstly, this isn't some guy - it's the Prince of Wales. I've said it before and I'll say it again: if you're going to have a royal family, you have to treat them like a royal family. What's the point of calling them 'your grand high royal majesty' if they just live next door in the council flats? What did people expect Charles to fly in? Economy class? Either get rid of the parasites, like the sensible French, or get used to them being rich and snooty - after all, it's not like royalty just started acting this way recently.

But the second objection is probably more important. Hypocrisy simply isn't that important. Of course, it's not great, but is it really the worst thing people can do? The United States produced over six billion tonnes of carbon emissions in 2006, which puts the 322 of Charles's trip into perspective. The idea that one can only promote environmentalism without harming the environment at all seems pretty reactionary to me. If the world gets itself out of this mess, it is going to be due to collective action, and if public actions like the prince's tour help promote that collective action then they can be thought of as an investment, not a cost. Of course, all this assumes that it is a good investment - perhaps the rather ridiculous prince won't help the cause at all. And, of course, it may well be that the nature of the luxurious tour militates against him being taken seriously. But, and this is the point, this isn't one of the criticisms that Charles has faced (in this article at least). It's easy to sit around and call people hypocrites, but if that's all we did then we would never get anything done.

Knight of the Roundtable: When I was teaching undergraduates critical thinking, one of the lessons we taught them is to recognise and avoid what are called ad hominem arguments. These are where you reject an argument because of something about the person putting it forward. It's a sensible lesson to learn, but sometimes it can be very hard to faithfully apply. Today there is an opinion piece by Roger Kerr, the "executive director" of the Business Roundtable. There's a lot I don't know about this organisation. Who are they? What do they do? Is the table literal or metaphorical? If literal, is it actually round? But there is one thing I do know, and that is that they have a tremendous interest in moving New Zealand economic policy to the right. That's only natural - they are, after all, high-flying businesspeople. It's for this reason that I find it hard to take seriously the argument Kerr puts forward today, that "faith in government spending as a solution to financial woes is misplaced." I am slightly wary of entering such a debate, having little formal education in economics: but I am reasonably well read in 'popular' economics, and I think I am justified in being suspicious if Kerr's claims clash with those of others.

According to Kerr, "hundreds of economists in the United States are saying the Obama administration's so-called stimulus package is reckless." That is impressive until you consider that there must be tens of thousands of economists in the US, a number of whom I have read saying the government must put forward a stimulus package to save the economy. He claims that it is "widely considered" that government policy caused the Great Depression, a controversial-enough claim even without the obvious implication that the same has happened this time around, and that "New Deal spending was largely ineffective", in direct contradiction to the writings of many other (I have no idea if Kerr is actually an economist) economists.

I'll stop there. He pretty much goes on to say the usual things: cut spending, cut taxes, let's be like Singapore. My point is that, on some level, I am simply unqualified to judge his arguments. Even then, however, I feel somehow justified in rejecting them simply because of who he is. Does that make me a bad person?

A defence of "Your Views" - sort of: Not a defence of the opinions in Your Views, of course. Or a defence of the concept of YV, where anyone can just go onto the internet and receive a forum to moan and complain (*ahem*). What I mean is a defence of the reasonableness of citing YV in this blog. A friend (and fan) mentioned to me the other night that he was concerned that bringing up YV was too easy, and that it resulted in, if anything, straw man arguments. I thought that he had something of a point, and that I ought to address it here.

I decided that I use YV for two different purposes. First, it can be a little light relief, as well as a humbling realisation that the people who write these things are the demographic of the Herald (and the media in general) as well. But, secondly, I think that it can have a more insidious aspect. The haka issue last week was a perfect example - with massively sensationalised reporting of the issue, the Herald provided the spark - and with the YV question they provided the fuel. No one should be surprised that what resulted was an inferno. If the kinds of entries that I mentioned came up, and to the extent that the angry atmosphere that results affects policy in a democratic state, the Herald must be held somewhat culpable. As such, I feel that, within reason, YV is an important aspect of my task here at Editing the Herald. If you have any doubt of that, go to Friday's YV on the sentencing of Bruce Emery (the man who stabbed Pihema Cameron to death after Cameron tagged his property) - I honestly don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Friday, February 13, 2009: Bad luck edition

Misleading headline of the day: From the top of the front page - "Series win on the cards", next to a picture of New Zealand cricketer Luteru Taylor. For those of you not au fait with the cricketing situation, New Zealand and Australia are tied 2-2 in the best of five series - the bastards from across the sea having clawed their way back from 2-0 down - so the winner tonight will, well, win the series. Now, as far as I know, "on the cards" has two different meanings:

1) A series win is possible: Well, it's been possible twice already - is this the third time you've reported this 'news'?
2) A series win is probable, as in "oh look, the cards just came up with this result": Well, Australia just beat us twice in a row, and the TAB have them at $1.42. I would say a series win is definitely less probable than it has been any time in the past week.

Yeah, yeah. It's just a headline. But I have one that is actually considerably more timely and accurate: "Series loss on the cards".

Happy Valentine's Day!: You may remember James Ihaka from my posts over the last month; along with "social affairs reporter" Simon Collins, he is becoming one of the first stars of 'Editing the Herald'. Today he broaches the hard-hitting issue of cheating on one's partner, just the kind of thing everyone wants to be thinking of before Valentine's Day. Apparently, "while men are more likely to be away at 'urgent' meetings or show less interest in sex, women are more devious in their infidelity and often recruit their friends to cover for their deception." Other signs of a cheat? 'Excessive' texting, more time spent at work and "cyber cruising", which is like regular cruising except with virtual bananas. This is hardly socially responsible reporting (what would Simon say?), but that's never stopped the Herald before. One can tell it's a nothing story not only because almost everything in the already short article is mentioned twice, but also because the source of the 'story' is not an article recently published in the International Journal of Infidelity. Rather, it's one Kerrie Pihema, a private investigator clearly trying to drum up some business in a less than savoury way. James Ihaka even goes to the trouble of sourcing a "Signs of a Cheat" infobox from Rokez Investigations, Ms Pihema's business, so that newly suspicious partners can Google the site and have their suspicions confirmed - for a small fee. The Herald loves to combine articles and advertising, but I think this may be the first time I have seen articles, advertising and bad-taste fearmongering combined into one. And for that, James Ihaka deserves some recognition.

OK, now it's your actual, actual last chance: Bailey Kurariki, New Zealand's youngest murderer and, subsequently, a celebrity who would be in the papers if he sneezed in prison, was back in court yesterday after allegedly breaching his parole. Thirteen when he was jailed, he is now 19 and, it seems, more or less a lost cause. If he weren't screwed up enough as a 13-year-old, spending his teenage years in prison probably hasn't helped much. So it seems pointless for Judge Semi Epati to warn him and give him "final chances". Even more pointlessly, he warns Kurariki's mother to "give him the supervision that he needs". Unfortunately, Judge Epati, I suspect that if that were likely then we wouldn't have been in this situation in the first place.

PR pitstop gets 'lapped' up (see what I did there?): I realise that some of my potential readership (small as it is) will be attending 'Top Gear Live' this weekend so, despite my visceral dislike for the show and its adherents, I will keep my comments relevant. I heard a radio advertisement for the show, describing it as "the greatest automotive theatre ever seen", a claim that ought to be filed with "world's tallest lobster parliament". You mean better than... monster truck events? Are they theatre? You probably wouldn't want to describe them so to attendees. But I digress. The show's "formidable PR machine" has well and truly bowled over those careful and critical custodians of society's truth - our journalists. According to a handout, Jeremy Clarkson loves New Zealand! But, rather strangely, he'd rather be performing a medical examination on Angelina Jolie (??). Etc etc. "Reporters were also treated to a brief sampling of the show's offerings - including an extended sequence in which blah blah blah..." I'm sure all this motorised fellatio of the assembled journalists had nothing to do with the glowing review that is printed right below. "Top Gear Live is definitely worth the admission price - it's fast, funny and highly irreverent." Well, I'm two out of those three, and you get to read my blog for free.

The new face of Fonterra: Andrew Ferrier, the CEO of Fonterra, has had a bit of bad press recently. Lowered dairy payouts and contaminated milk killing babies have had Andrew's photo in the paper more than he might have wished. But it's good to see that the Herald today have taken a different approach to a story on the reluctance of cheese and butter prices to fall for consumers. Instead of the CEO, the picture is of a small child happily eating cheese on toast. (Yes, the photo appears in both the paper and online editions.) When I first saw it, I didn't know which reaction to go with: a) "She's mighty young for a Fonterra executive!" or b) "So that's what cheese looks like!". Cast your votes at

Shoepinion: I don't really understand the popularity of Noelle McCarthy. I mean, I have never met her, but apparently quite a few people have and she's very nice, and she has done good stuff on bFM or whatever. And anyway, people I don't really understand are allowed to write in newspapers if they want. Until today, her column on fashion or being a girl or whatever has been hidden away somewhere and I haven't had to read it; now it appears on the opinion/dialogue page, which is a whole different kettle of fish, whatever that means. I confess, I have only skimmed her piece. It is about shoes (happily, there's a photo of a shoe to make things clearer), and evidently it also somehow involves the economic crisis. However, I suspect this is merely a fig leaf to justify its inclusion on a page which is supposedly dedicated to the discussion of heavyweight issues - the other pieces on the page are about healthcare reform and creating employment. I don't think anyone is going to claim that there is too much discussion on such issues in the Herald.

Edit: On closer inspection, shoes seem to be being used as some kind of metaphor for the crisis. Or something. Still: shoes.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Thursday, February 12, 2009: Eggs and haka, haka and eggs

Incredible, edible eggs: Front page news today about eggs, people. I assume they refer mainly to chicken eggs, although it is never made clear - quite possibly this applies to ostrich eggs, kiwi eggs, Easter eggs etc. Apparently past research into eggs is wrong, and they are not 'bright yellow cholesterol bombs' that that various peer-reviewed studies have claimed. That's what the latest peer-reviewed study claims.

Obviously I haven't read the study in question, and if I had I wouldn't have understood it anyway, but this seems to me just another example of the atrocious science reporting in the Herald (although, in this case, the Herald steals the story wholesale from the Telegraph - a front page story!). I now await the next report, about how actually eggs are bad for you, so for god's sake don't eat them. Drink lots of red wine; don't drink any red wine. You need to exercise more; but not that much exercise, you'll die! So forgive me if I don't change my lifestyle based on one article.

To add to my frustration, the Herald's contribution to this article was putting pictures of eggs next to the text - just in case eggs' legendary cholesterol content manifested such extreme ovophobia that you had been unable to so much as look at them before, and were therefore unable to conjure up the necessary mental image to attach to the story.

Much ado about haka: Remember when Maori took all our stuff, and wouldn't let us use it again? Oh, that's right, that never happened - but you wouldn't know it from the Herald's reporting of the proposed Ngati Toa Treaty of Waitangi settlement. After some pretty sensationalist reporting over the past few days, the Herald today assures New Zealanders that they will not have to pay up "if they're having a game of backyard cricket and decide they want to do Ka Mate". Firstly, who the hell does a haka when they're playing backyard cricket? Second, although that was a quote from John Key, the Herald turn what was pretty clearly a throwaway line from the PM into a confrontational headline. The implication, of course, is that this is exactly what Maori would love to do. Of course, even if they wanted to, they couldn't - if I want to sing Dreadlock Holiday, Hotel California or Puttin' on the Ritz during backyard cricket, no one is going to stop me, both for legal and practical reasons. So even though there is no possible danger here, the Herald decide to make not only a point of it, but the point of it. You may have heard of this phenomenon before - it's called 'sexing up'. In case you missed it, the original article a couple of days ago was accompanied by a vaguely offensive cartoon depicting a traditional Maori performer singing, "Ka mate, ka mate/ Dollar, dollar." If one bothered to read the actual text, it was made clear that Maori weren't seeking to profit from Ka Mate's use - but by then the point had been made.

The biggest issue here, however, is the continued worry, reinforced by the reporting of the media, that these kind of settlements are intended to shaft pakeha (non-Maori New Zealanders). Just because if we gave control of Mt Taranaki to some property developer from Howick we would turn up to find toll booths all around the bottom and a mall at the summit, doesn't mean that iwi (tribes) are going to do the same. The furore over the foreshore and seabed issue was largely down to the mistaken idea that Maori would control all NZ's beaches, and therefore could and would restrict our access. Of course it meant neither the former nor the latter - but that didn't stop inflammatory reporting and, eventually, knee-jerk legislation. Look at Bastion Pt in Auckland - Muldoon's government wanted to sell this prime land overlooking the harbour to developers for high-income housing until the occupation by local iwi and their supporters forced a reconsideration. Now in Maori hands, it largely remains parkland open the public - not something that could be said of it had it been covered in McMansions. Why we should think that Ngati Toa will do anything outrageous with Ka Mate, even-if-they-could-but-they-can't, I have no idea.

Of course, this combination of Maori-bashing and 'threatening' our rugby culture is like mixing caesium and water in the beaker that is "Your Views". Here are just a few comments from the responsible citizens who work out their frustrations therein*:

stormer 83 (New South Wales): Don't be fooled there will be some kind of scam which is not published in the newspapaers. It may not even be money they ask for but a few hectares of land or something. They will for something for nothing like usual. Dedicated to all those who think they aren't asking for something.

Huggiebear (Ellerslie): Political correctness to death is what it is ... Anyway if these people are charging royalties for a haka it is truly over the top. I doubt its true, but if it is its Mr Key trying to look after his new friends. Time for the charade to end, so Mr Key is all chubby chubby with the Brorocracy. Anyway this Ngati Moaning tribe and Ngati Moneygrabber tribe will get their cme uppance when they see their pakeha friends and relations forking out to do it. Utter codswallop,

Mic Cossell (Queensland): People all over the world would be saying what is a Maori right now if it wasn't for the All Blacks doing the haka. They should pay money to whomever run the All Blacks for doing the haka. It has been some of the best advertising for New Zealand and the Maori's. It isn't yours to give away, you don't want us to perform it then forget about you. How about you give back to New Zealand for once instead of take take take.

Good job, Herald. Give these people ammunition, and then give them a forum to communicate their ridiculous opinions. You're really doing a good job of advancing dialogue.

*As I copy-and-paste all "Your Views" from the Herald website, all grammar and spelling errors are the original contributor's, not mine. My contributions remain the 'research' and humorous juxtaposition.

Late edit: Christ, the haka story has even made it into the Guardian. I swear they didn't even mention the NZ election (I was there at the time), but this made it in. Still, the story is much better than the one in the Herald - even if the headline is ungrammatical ("Maoris") and a bit confrontational.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Wednesday, 11 February: 'Shafting the poor' edition

McMoaning: Hot on the heels of the Business New Zealand CEO 'worrying' about the effects of the minimum wage "increase" (keeping in mind that it isn't really an increase in terms of prices), McDonald's has send out a spine-chilling warning about the potential effects of the change. The same reporter is involved, interestingly enough, although on this occasion it is unclear who approached whom for the article. According to Mark Hawthorne, the Macca's NZ managing director, the company "may be forced to increase prices and review plans for expansion." The fact that the wage change was "combined with other cost increases" is buried in the text. Even if this 'announcement' is something other than corporate propaganda - that is, even if the price rises and shelved expansion plans do actually happen - I can't see this as a matter of huge public interest warranting a reasonably large article on A3.

I was also amused to see that "McDonald's lifted all its youth workers on to adult rates" last March. What you actually mean there, Simon Collins, social issues reporter, is that McDonald's was forced to pay all its workers 'adult' wages after the government abolished youth rates, after a long campaign by unions. How generous of McDonald's to meet their statutory obligations. It reminds me of an ad run in US newspapers by ExxonMobil after the Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989: Congress, shocked by the extent of the mess, finally passed legislation enforcing the preventive measures, such as double-hulled oil tankers, that Exxon and the other oil giants had spent years (successfully) lobbying against. Not at all discouraged, Exxon ran an ad describing the new technology they were implementing that would ensure such a disaster could never happen. It all sounded so good, one wondered why they had never done it before. The message here, Simon, is this: corporations like Exxon or McDonald's have enough means to provide their own PR. The last thing we need is you licking their arse as well.

Editing the editorial: The Herald editorial does not exactly have a reputation for being radical. "In more benign times," it begins, "the minimum wage tends too often to be viewed in isolation, with little heed paid to its place in the wider economic picture." Presumably, this means too much worrying about low-income earners ability to live (or, as this editorial euphemistically puts it, "the purchasing power of the country's lowest income earners would be diminished"), and not enough about the bottom lines of businesses - especially the large businesses that seem to employ the lion's share of minimum wage workers. Certainly, the economy is integrated to the extent that there are flow-on effects and so on, and of course these ought to be considered. But I don't think that this justifies the reactionary tone that the editorial board takes here. Apparently the only people who could disagree with the government's decision are the "hopelessly optimistic or the ideologically blinkered." Right then.

The rest of the editorial is dedicated to rejecting Unite's Matt McCarten's proposal to call a referendum to raise the minimum wage first to $15, and then to 2/3 of the average wage within three years. Agree or disagree (and I am unsure), this is hardly calling for the heads of the kulaks, yet the Herald leaps into hyperbole as if 'Mao' McCarten were calling for revolution. "As important as equality is, it does not outrank opportunity among the principles that adorn healthy societies," it says, clearly unfamiliar with the concept of equality of opportunity. "The unsaid canon underlying Unite's proposal is that individuality should be ignored [!]. As such, an unqualified youth [youths!!] new to a job would be paid close to the same as a fully trained worker with 25 years' experience who was on the average wage. If this has any relationship to egalitarianism, it can only be to the most ludicrous of extremes." I'm sorry, but what an outrageous load of shit - did they just let Roger Douglas (on whom more later) write the editorial? For a start, according to my 'calculations' the 'youth' would would be paid 2/3 of the average wage, which doesn't seem particularly close to me. And surely the "most ludicrous" of extremes would be paying them the same. Shrug.

It goes on, but I'm out of steam. It's too humid to get this angry.

"Your" views: As you may be aware, a small selection - six or so 'opinions' - from the previous day's YV topic is presented in the physical paper. You may also be aware that the daily Herald online poll results are shown next to the Views. Funnily enough, they were both asking the same question: was the minimum wage increase the right amount, or was it too much or too little? The results were as follows:

Was it right to raise the minimum wage by 50c to $12.50 an hour? (3113 votes)

57% Yes
29% No - too little
14% No - too much

Ignoring the fact that the editorial just described 1000 of its readers as "hopelessly optimistic" or "ideologically blinkered", it's vaguely interesting to see how the poll result corresponds with the views printed next door. Well, out of six people, none of them thought that the increase was too little. Matty is one who agrees with John Key: "The increase is fair in this market. It is a minimum rate. If people are on this they are either inexperienced or not worthy of a higher rate." Three others more or less seem to agree, pointing out that pushing it any higher would be disastrous. But two of the contributors not only feel that this rise was too much, but that the whole concept of a minimum wage is a communist plot:

Margot (Napier): "There should be no minimum wage. If an employee doesn't like their job, rather than griping, they know where the front door is."

Good old compassionate Margot. But of course there are crazy people around: what's concerning is that the Herald's reporting on this issue seems amazingly one sided. Seriously, did no one write on Your Views in support of a higher raise?

Back from the dead - or is he?: Normally I don't care to read the business section of the paper. It works like this. For better or worse, I have a very slight interest in business affairs (as opposed to general economic affairs), as do most of the population. Those who do have such an interest are called 'businessmen', and as such the business pages reflect the views and interests of that group. The problem is this becomes a vicious circle, to the point where the pages end up as either a massive gripefest or a self-congratulatory circle jerk. Anyway...

Today on the cover of the business section is the one, the only 'Sir' Roger Douglas. For those too young or too foreign to remember, Douglas was the Minister of Finance during David Lange's Labour government in the 1980s, and was primarily responsible for the massive economic and social changes that happened then. This is neither the time nor the place to argue about whether the changes were good or bad: suffice to say that, even if change was needed, he could have looked a bit less thrilled while he was doing it. Yesterday he unveiled his grand new scheme: an optional parallel tax system. Basically, you opt out of government services and, in return, pay much less tax. But whatever - the specifics of this ridiculous plan aren't even important, for the reason that they are just not going to happen. John Key has already refused to snuggle up with Douglas (in public, at least) and, apart from the optional aspect, this is just the same old thing you hear from the economic hard-right all the time, and which will never, ever happen, any more than Matt McCarten's wage 'plans'. My question is: why does the Herald business section give him a massive headline - "Douglas unveils his parallel tax plan", as if he were still in any position to implement it - a big photo and a lead article? I suspect I have already answered my own question in the paragraph above.

Thanks Leo: To finish off today's blog on a light, head-slapping note, we go to Letters page correspondent Leo Gordon of Taumaranui. Eagle-eyed Leo, who is possibly a retired police officer, and whom I imagine shaking his fist at children playing on his lawn, has spotted something awry in a Herald photo:

"A pity Monday's Herald photo of the toll road did not capture the number plate of the car in the outside of the south-bound lanes. The driver should be reminded that the outside lane of multi-lane highways is an overtaking lane, not a fast lane, and that having left other cars far behind, he/she should be in the inside lane."

Thanks for that Leo. You've singlehandedly brought 1984 a little bit closer.